I remember when we used to sitTrenchtown is a slum neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica whose most distinctive feature was an open sewer trench. The government yard was a public housing project where Marley lived.
In the government yard in Trenchtown
This doesn't sound like promising raw materials for a tourist attraction, but the second line is so ineffably memorable that, sure enough, Jamaicans are trying to make the government yard in Trenchtown into a museum. Apparently, tourists have been getting off planes for years and telling cab drivers they want to sit in the government yard in Trenchtown. The BBC reports:
"The public housing project where reggae legend Bob Marley lived is being re-envisioned as a historic site and tourist area. But high crime in the depressed neighborhood poses a challenge to dreams of a tourist-friendly shrine to Marley."I can see how this could be a problem because the crime rate in Kingston scared the hell out of The Clash when they visited 30 years ago. As Joe Strummer recalled of their trip to Jamaica in "Safe European Home:"
I went to the placeDidn't Bob have, like, a favorite beach or waterfall he liked to visit, maybe bring his guitar along and work on his songs? Tourists like beaches and waterfalls a lot more than they like housing projects. I'm just trying to be helpful here ...
Where every white face
Is an invitation to robbery
An’ sitting here in my safe European home
I don’t wanna go back there again
The funny thing about the line's fame is that there's not a lot of catchy melody going on when Bob sings, "In the government yard in Trenchtown." I suspect the use of common English words to make up slightly puzzling phrases helped make it popular. But, clearly, the wistful, elegiac organ part behind the verses plays a huge role.
Now, where have I had heard the organ line in "No Woman, No Cry" more or less before? I certainly have negligible musical skills, but it's surely reminiscent of (without being exactly the same as) Procol Harum's famous bluesy organ part from their 1967 hit "A Whiter Shade of Pale." Procol Harum's organ line was inspired by J.S. Bach's "Air on a G String" and another Bach piece. (Here's a technical discussion of the Bach-Procol relationship, and here's the scene in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing about how Bach, "that cheeky beggar," stole "A Whiter Shade of Pale.")
Marley's organ part is quite similar to Procol's, and adds a catchy descending resolution at the end, set to the words "No woman, no cry," that wraps it up nicely. (By the way, here's a quantitative description of why the live version of "No Woman, No Cry" is so much more popular than the trite studio version on Natty Dread -- it's slowed down from 99 beats per minute on the studio album to 78 beats per minute on the live album. This MeanSpeed site has calculated the beats-per-minute of 15,000 pop songs, and has developed some elaborate theories about how different speeds fit different emotions.)
So, I was pleased to find out that Procol Harum has noticed this too and uses this when they tour on the Baby Boom nostalgia circuit:
"When they did Whiter Shade ... Gary feinted with a couple of false starts, going once into No Woman, No Cry and once into When a Man Loves a Woman before doing the full three-verse version ('Said I'm home on shore leave...')."
Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" came out the year before and has a similar chord structure to AWSoP.
Although there was a long court fight among members of Procol Harum over whether the Bach-inspired organ part was original enough to merit a share of the songwriting credit (and thus the royalties), it would be tacky to sue the Marley estate for a share of "No Woman, No Cry" because Marley registered the song he wrote as being written by a friend named V. Ford who runs a soup kitchen -- so "No Woman, No Cry" is the charitable donation that keeps on giving.
I've always liked to see bands mashup songs by different artists that share elements in common, such as a backbeat or chord structure.
Even more fun is when musician and singer aren't in cahoots but can still follow each other. The best DJ in LA is Steve Jones, the Sex Pistols guitarist, a shambling, amiable old bloke who knows everybody in the music business. Despite all the made-up nonsense about how the (pre-Sid) Sex Pistols couldn't play their instruments (kind of like how "Seinfeld," the most intricately plotted sitcom in American TV history, is always described as a "a show about nothing"), Jones was a well-paid session guitarist for many years after the Sex Pistols broke up in 1978. So, Jonesy, who has been on the wagon for twelve years, does his two hour show each day on 103.1 FM with his acoustic guitar in his lap. It's fascinating listening to somebody who talks like an old duffer, yet whose music intelligence remains so sharp.
Last spring, his guest was Mika, a Beirut-born English pop singer with operatic training. So, Jonesy started by playing on his guitar Mika's latest hit for his guest to sing, then segueing into songs by Mika's influences, such as Freddie Mercury (an English Parsi gay) and George Michael (an English Greek/Jewish gay), then into songs that influenced Mika's influences, such as going from George Michael and Wham's "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" to Martha and the Vandella's Motown "Heat Wave." Mika valiantly followed Jonesy' lead, scat-singing when he couldn't remember the lyrics, turning ten minutes of live music into a seminar on a half century of one thread of pop history.
The Jonesy's Jukebox show is such a success that it seems very strange that I can't recall ever hearing before a rock DJ who plays guitar live on the air.